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By Kim Clark
College admissions officers tell applicants they are looking for students who "fit" on campus. High school counselors tell students that they need to find a college that "fits" their unique learning styles and interests. Publishers of college guides--including U.S.News & World Report--advertise tools and data designed to help high schoolers winnow through the thousands of colleges in the U.S. to find the handful that offer the "best fit."
Now, a few counselors are starting to worry that the emphasis on college "fit" is giving too many high schoolers the romantic--and possibly harmfully inaccurate--notion that there is a "perfect match" college out there for them. In fact, these counselors argue, typically dozens, or even hundreds, of colleges out of America's 4,300 accredited degree-granting institutions would serve a student well.
Carl Ahlgren, director of college counseling at the Gilman School, a private boys' school in Baltimore, says he and many other counselors are worried about the growing number of students who are making themselves crazy searching for colleges that match some quixotic ideals they've imagined, or who become devastated if they get rejected from their one dream college.
"Applicants who totally ingest the whole notion of 'fit' often assume that means they will be happy at "maybe only one, two, or three schools," Ahlgren says. But really, there might be 100 schools where that particular student could thrive, he believes. "Smart kids find other smart kids and good teachers, and they are happy."
The problem is becoming especially acute for girls, says Mark Moody, co-director of college counseling at Colorado Academy, a private school in Denver. "Girls seem more likely to put pressure on themselves to find--and get into--the 'perfect' school." He adds: "We're seeing (and hearing from colleagues at other schools) more and more about girls losing their joy in learning and feeling like they have to be building a perfect record of accomplishment, [to get into their one dream school] which of course leads to massive stress."
The focus on a "perfect fit" college not only makes students miserable, but can be a waste of time and energy because the typical high schooler doesn't actually know what he or she wants in a college. Researchers at the College Board and the University of Illinois--Urbana-Champaign compared what thousands of applicants said they wanted in a college with their performance in the colleges they ended up attending. Students who chose schools that appeared to "fit" their high school criteria were just as likely to drop out as those who ended up at colleges that didn't appear to "fit" them.
"How would high school students know the 'right' college size for them? 10,000? 15,000? Most have never attended college before!" the authors wondered. "Possibly students weren't selecting characteristics that were 'right' for them but rather selecting a characteristic of an ideal or stereotypical college."
One factor did seem to make a difference: students who chose more academically selective schools had better graduation rates than similarly qualified students who attended less elite colleges, another College Board paper found.
Many counselors have pushed the idea of students searching for a college that "matches" their characteristics to reduce the influence that rankings, such as those published by U.S. News, appeared to be having on student college choices. Robert Morse , U.S. News's director of data research, says rankings, which are based on many factors such as graduation rates, should be just one component in a student's college search.
Moody and Ahlgren say students and parents should stop treating college like marriage by searching for "soulmates." Instead, these counselors say, students should shop for colleges the way they do for, say, jackets, which will only last a few years. Lots of jackets "fit," after all. And kids often grow into clothes that initially seem too big or ill-fitting.
The counselors warn against limiting applications to just a few "dream" colleges, but also against going overboard and applying to dozens of colleges. They believe students and parents will be happier if they broaden their notion of "fit" to basic criteria such as affordability, whether the student feels comfortable on campus, and whether the student can be academically challenged, but still succeed.
"I tell kids that if they are expecting a particular institution to just hand them a great life and an amazing experience, they're going to be disappointed. They'll find good and bad teachers anywhere they go, and the random accidents of relationships, experiences, and influence at any given college can't be predicted," Moody says.
Instead, students can develop valuable life skills by making the best of whatever college they end up attending. "'Fit' happens," Moody says. "Students grow into it wherever they land, if they're open-minded and engaged. They need to remember that they'll be changing and growing in unexpected ways, and maybe the 'un-fit' of a college is the most important part of the experience--the unfamiliar people, ideas, and experiences that will push students to new revelations and knowledge about themselves and the world."
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